CHICAGO — Interest in plant-based diets shows no signs of slowing with consumers seeking out new foods and formats emphasizing protein content. The challenge is that there’s no historical physiological insight to how the human body handles the many types of plant ingredients being consumed today. The food industry is slowly starting to understand that consumers have sensitivities and intolerances to some plant-based ingredients, namely pulses, one of the more common plant sources of protein.

Large amounts of pulses can cause gastrointestinal distress in some individuals. For a select few, miniscule amounts may result in anaphylactic shock. The only way to avoid them is to carefully screen ingredient statements, as pulses are not an established allergen and not specifically called out on the Nutrition Facts panel. With plant-based proteins commonplace in many foods, especially grain-based snacks and baked goods, some bakers may want to explore other sources.

“A main goal with protein enrichment is balancing nutrition with good taste,” said Laurie Scanlin, research and development culinary manager for Ardent Mills. “This can be achieved in food formulations by understanding what each ingredient offers alone, as well as in combination or pairings.”

Beyond the bean

There are many sources of plant protein, some more unusual than others. Alternative flours, which are obtained from plants other than traditional grains or seeds, are an example.

Barrio Bread mesquite flour artisan breadDon Guerra, owner of Barrio Bread in Tucson, Ariz., uses mesquite flour in a number of recipes. The fleshy part of the mesquite tree’s pod provides carbohydrates including soluble and insoluble fibers. The seeds are a concentrated source of protein with the essential amino acid lysine, which is often limited in plant-based proteins. This makes mesquite flour a nutritional powerhouse, as it’s also loaded with calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc. The flour has a malty, nutty, smoky, sweet flavor profile often described as having hints of cocoa, maple, molasses and hazelnut.

Mr. Guerra uses mesquite flour with locally sourced wheat flours to make a loaf topped with pumpkin seeds. The toasted seeds bring additional plant protein, flavor and crunch to the bread and are a source of plant protein that many bakers tend to forget. Their crunchy textures and earthy flavors add an extra layer of sensory appeal.

“People are looking for products beyond the ordinary,” said Jane Dummer, a registered dietitian and author of The Need for Seeds.

“Seeds [and nuts] pack a punch of plant protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids," she said. "For consumers who require nut-free or gluten-free, seeds are outstanding ingredient choices.”

Indeed, nut flours and powders are growing, with many contributing noteworthy levels of protein. Almond protein powder from Blue Diamond Almonds' Global Ingredients Division, for example, is about 45% protein. It is made from almonds grown in California’s Central Valley that undergo a simple mechanical separation process where the fat is removed and the protein and fiber gets concentrated.

“Almond powder is ideal for protein and nutrition bars as well as breakfast cereals," said Jeff Smith, director of marketing for Blue Diamond Almonds' Global Ingredients Division. "It can be included as part of an almond flour blend, contributing to fortified versions of bars, cookies, brownies and other bakery favorites. It can also aid in neutralizing unwanted flavors contributed by other nutritional ingredients, including complementary proteins, vitamins and minerals.”

Oakmeal acorn flourAcorns are another nut catching the attention of specialty bakers. Sue Chin, owner of Sue´s Acorn Cafe & Mill in Martinez, Calif., collects local acorns to produce her own flour. She uses it to create an array of baked goods served at her restaurant and sold online.

Acorns — the nuts with caps and shells removed — are high in protein, potassium, magnesium, calcium and vitamin B6. They are naturally gluten-free and loaded with fiber. There are more than 400 species of oak trees grown around the world, and the acorns they produce vary in color, flavor and size.

On Kea Island in Greece, Marcie Mayer heads the Oakmeal Acorn Initiative, which is a multifaceted project to help farmers rekindle the collection of acorn caps for exportation to tanneries, as well as establishing acorn flour-based products in the local cuisine.

“Acorn flour is best combined with other flours, grains and oats,” she said. “It is a hard flour and needs extra time to absorb other ingredients in a dough or batter.”

Waste not, want not

Also known as spent grains in the brewing world, alternative flours may also be made from traditional grains that have already been used. They get upcycled by being given a second chance to be consumed.

Mr. Guerra works with local craft beer brewers such as Iron John’s Brewing Co. in Tucson to source their spent grain, which typically gets discarded after brewing. He uses the spent grains with wheat flour to make a specialty loaf with a nutty, toasted flavor profile. The liquid is squeezed out of the spent grain before it’s folded into the dough.

“I reduce the added water, as about 30% of the liquid in the bread is now the wort in the spent grain,” Mr. Guerra said.

Spent grains used in this fashion often add some chewiness to the baked bread. This is likely due to the gelatinized starch in the wet grain.

A challenge in working with spent grain is that it spoils quickly. It is a concentrated source of carbohydrates, proteins and water, an ideal environment for microbial growth unless the grains are refrigerated, frozen or further processed quickly. Processing includes drying and milling the spent grain into flour, which is being done by a number of brewers and secondary processors who support regenerative food systems. The result is a high-protein, high-fiber flour with a distinctive flavor profile that complements many baked goods.

Rise Products Inc. flour made from spent barley from beerRise Products Inc. produces and sells flour made from spent barley from beer. The flour contains about 25% protein and 40% dietary fiber. Flavor and color vary by style of beer.

“The brewing process extracts sugars and starches from malted barley, leaving behind the protein and the fiber,” said Bertha Jimenez, co-founder and chief executive officer of Rise Products. “Through our proprietary process, we turn this byproduct into a healthy, tasty, nutritious and sustainable flour.”

A lighter flour comes from the spent grains of ales and pilsners and has a nutty caramel flavor profile, while a dark flour is produced from porters and stouts. The darker product has coffee and chocolate notes.

Other food byproducts have also found their way into flour form, providing bakers with more varied plant-based proteins. Planetarians produces defatted sunflower seed flour that is an upcycled byproduct from sunflower oil extraction.

“In the traditional process, the cake — a mix of seeds and up to 20% hulls — remaining after the oil extraction is used for feed, wasted or burned,” said Edgar Hernandez, Planetarians sales manager. “Planetarians developed technology to process the cake into a food-grade, high-quality protein flour.”

The final flour is allergen- and gluten-free and contains 35% protein and 18% flour. It is also naturally non-G.M.O. and delivers a slightly nutty flavor.

“It works best as a partial replacement for traditional flour in most applications,” said Jamie Valenti-Jordan, strategic adviser for Planetarians. “The flour is dark and boldly artisan looking.”

Renewal Mill okara flourRenewal Mill is all about upcycled ingredients. The company currently sells okara flour, which is a high-fiber, high-protein, gluten-free flour made from the soybean pulp generated during soymilk production.

“Okara flour is an extremely versatile ingredient with a very neutral flavor, which is described as slightly milky or nutty," said Claire Schlemme, c.e.o. of Renewal Mill. "It has a light color allowing it to blend easily into most flour-based products, including pasta, pancake mix and cookies. Okara flour has a number of functional benefits, including having high water- and oil-binding abilities. This improves moisture retention and can lengthen shelf life of bakery products.”

Mushrooms may also serve as a source of plant protein. MycoTechnology is introducing shiitake fermented vegetable protein. It is a complete protein and considered comparable in protein quality to animal-based products, according to the company. It has a malted cereal taste and aroma that lends itself to most baked goods applications.

The proprietary fermentation process de-flavors the raw materials, removing off notes. It is also low in carbohydrates and fat, with most of the fat in the form of omega-3 fatty acids.

Ancient and sprouted flours

Many ancient grains are also concentrated sources of plant protein as they are whole grains and contain the entire seed of a plant: the bran, germ and endosperm. Refined grains have the bran and germ removed, leaving only the endosperm. This decreases the protein content by about 25% and removes many important nutrients.

Healthy Food Ingredients (H.F.I.) offers a wide portfolio of non-G.M.O. and organic plant-based proteins including ancient grains, flaxseed and purple corn. They are available in whole form or in further processed formats to suit many varied baking applications.

“Whole or milled flaxseed is an excellent inclusion or topping for breads,” said Jay Johnson, chief operating officer of H.F.I. “Our purple corn ingredients are value-added [plant protein ingredients], as they contribute exceedingly high levels of antioxidants and anthocyanins.”

Sprout powders are a new format of concentrated plant protein. These are sprouts from varied conventional and organic crops including alfalfa, barley, broccoli, kale, mustard, oat, pumpkin, quinoa, radish and sunflower that are then dried and milled into a powder. They add protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins and other nutrients to the foods.

Fullei Fresh sproutsSprouts are vegetables typically harvested at about 3 to 7 days of growth and contain more nutrients than their full-grown counterparts, according to Olivia Wong, marketing manager for Fullei Fresh, a company focused on hydroponically growing spouts in its vertically integrated facility. The non-G.M.O. sprouts are grown without the use of pesticides, and the powders are 100% pure sprouts, free of any additives or preservatives.

“Breads, cookies, granola bars and other baked goods with similar texture are best because of the powder texture and tastes,” Ms. Wong said. “Alfalfa sprout powder is the mildest, most neutral-tasting of the sprout powders and has high protein per serving at 38%. Others like broccoli, kale and radish are high-protein and nutritious but have a stronger taste. By blending them into breads, cookies and the like, the powder’s taste is somewhat masked, making for more pleasant tasting baked goods.”

Quintessence Nutraceuticals markets a rice extract ingredient made from the germ and bran layers of rice. It contains more than 70 antioxidants, 13% hydrolyzed proteins, dietary fiber and essential amino acids and can be used in a range of bakery applications up to 400°F, including granola bars, cookies and brownies.

“Sourced from 100% non-G.M.O. rice grown in the Sacramento Valley, the ingredient is not rice bran but rather a highly bioavailable and bioactive complex of nutrient-dense phytonutrients,” said Laura Tagliani, director of science and compliance for Quintessence Nutraceuticals. “It is made through a patented hydrolyzation and extraction process that unlocks the maximum available nutritional value of rice, making it bioavailable and bioactive. It is labeled simply ‘rice extract.’ ”

Wheat is the source of plant protein for MGP Ingredients Inc. Wheat protein isolates are made by wet-processing wheat flour into starch and gluten, where the gluten undergoes physical/mechanical processing with or without the addition of processing aids to yield high-protein (85% to 90%) gluten with varying extensibility and elastic properties.

“Yeast-leavened bakery products are prime candidates for application of wheat protein isolate,” said Ody Maningat, vice-president of research and development and chief science officer for MGP Ingredients. “Occasionally bakeries have to contend with variabilities in the quality of raw material flour. In cases where the flour is of marginal quality, an elastic wheat protein isolate is desired to remedy the problem.”

As more consumers switch to plant-based diets, varying the source of plant protein will help bakers reach consumer needs and demands.

“Meeting the nutritional needs and achieving the right functional requirements will require a broad range of protein alternatives that are sustainable, affordable and great tasting,” said Tony DeLio, senior vice-president of corporate strategy and chief innovation officer at Ingredion, Inc.